My October after Sept.11

I originally wrote this column as part of my then newspaper's year-end retrospective package of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

It originally published Dec. 24, 2001:

 It was not the trip I planned.

I hatched my New York vacation in April. At the long-awaited wedding of Shana to her college beau in Fort Lauderdale, she, Kathy and I - college roommates and the best of friends - decided to reassemble in New York in October. Kathy lives there and we thought we deserved a girls' getaway weekend.

We planned on having cocktails at 5 p.m., sleeping late, eating well and shaking our stuff on the dance floor.

A few days after Sept. 11, Shana and I consulted and decided we were still going.

Having grown up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., she wanted to see the city she used to sneak into on the weekends and the friends who now make it their home. Being stubborn, I wanted to go because I had made plans no group of nuts with a martyr complex was going to disrupt.

Make no mistake: New York a month after the attacks was not entirely cloaked in sackcloth and ashes.

You still needed reservations to eat dinner at 8. Guys still hawked rip-off DKNY bags and Kenneth Cole jackets in SoHo. The Naked Cowboy still played a beat-up guitar in Times Square, though with that moniker scrawled on his tighty-whities, he was hardly naked or a cowboy.

You could dance all night at a reggae bar on Avenue C and dodge drunken stock brokers celebrating a birthday at a Moroccan bar lit by dim chandeliers and white taper candles melting wax onto the butcher paper covering linen tablecloths.

But there was a good crowd at St. Patrick's Cathedral, not all tourists.

The pews were fairly well-filled at lunchtime on a Friday. People knelt, heads bowed, rosaries dangling from their hands. And not just good Catholic grandmothers waiting for afternoon confession to start. People in tight clusters of two or three. People my age. Lots of people my age.

Me included.

I am a classic poinsettia-and- lily Catholic. At Mass on the big days I keep the rosary I had as a kid, the amethyst-colored beads and the silver crucifix.

But I asked to see only four things this trip to New York: a Broadway show and at least one of the museums to feed my brain, the World Trade Center to see for myself, and St. Patrick's to run my hand along a hardwood pew, light a candle under St. Paul's image, and see if it made any more sense in God's house than it did in my living room when I watched it that morning.

Kathy and Tara, a pediatric physical therapist at a New York orthopedic hospital, confessed they still look for the Towers when they come out of the subway or get off the bus. That was how they oriented themselves. Trade Center, due south.

Kathy's beau, Francois, works in a building a few blocks west of the Trade Center. His office gets warm before lunchtime now. For years, the towers blocked the morning sun.

Kathy, who works in a building behind Rockefeller Center and a few blocks from St. Patrick's, heard bagpipes at funerals daily for weeks. Usually more than once a day.

At the close of "Chicago," a bawdy, Fosse show with a jazz- drenched score, the two leads finished the closing number. Then they thanked the crowd for coming and threw their roses to the audience.

The worst part of the job

Before Sept. 11, I thought the worst thing I'd have to deal with this year was listening by police scanner to emergency workers in a helicopter tell the sheriff's department that Jessie Arbogast had no pulse - that he had bled out on the beach.

That they were headed to Baptist Hospital, and the ambulance with the boy's arm had better get there fast. That CPR had gone on 30 minutes, 40 minutes, and they were 45 seconds from the hospital, 30 seconds, coming in...

As a reporter I have written about people who have been killed. I have talked to their parents and families. I have cried in the bathroom and then written my story.

But always, the worst part is getting the picture and seeing the face of the person who didn't expect that would be the image the rest of us would get when we read about what happened, that their family would send out into the world to remember them by.

As an editor, I have sent reporters to get that interview, that family photo. I have told them to be polite and say they are sorry they have to ask. I know they have felt much the way I did when I had to knock on the door.

It is the worst part of the job. It never gets easier.

Seeing the rubble of two, 110- story buildings fill a crater city blocks wide felt as bad as that.

Seeing the dust that coats everything in a five block radius felt as bad as that.

Riding in a cab past Bellevue and St. Vincents hospitals to see the hospital on 17th Street where Tara works, seeing all those handmade posters made for missing loved ones curling at the edges because no one wants to be the one to take them down, was as bad as that.

But the worst was turning a corner on the way to the Shubert Theater and finding myself in front of a fire station. Truly hundreds of posters and cards and letters and notes from across the country covered the outside walls. A third-grade class from Palo Alto. A classroom from North Dakota. A blur of flags crayoned and tempra-painted, then tacked to brick.

The entrance was a shrine for the members of that company lost. More than a dozen photos of men from picnics and parties, graduations and weddings. Flowers and candles heaped at the door. People hovering two and three deep on the sidewalk, some weeping, some staring.

Knowing there are dozens more scenes just like it all over the city - with more pictures just like those - made me weep on the city street.

Feeling frustrated

It was a schizophrenic four days. The day anthrax was discovered in Rockefeller Center - the day we set aside to go to Ground Zero - we sat in Kathy's living room, momentarily freaked out about whether it was safe to take the subway downtown or even leave the apartment.

We hopped the bus, then a cab for part of the way. We walked into Sephora in SoHo, where we spent a good 30 minutes trying to pick out eye makeup for me. Then we walked through Chinatown to Ground Zero.

We left the dust and rubble and dropped money on trendy shoes and clothes that flash a little tummy. Kathy and Shana threatened to make me pierce my ears.

They find it absurd that I got a tattoo but won't pierce my ears because it will hurt. They think it's because as an only child, I never had older sisters to make me do things I didn't want to do.

I said I'd do it if they both got tattoos. They balked and my earlobes remain safe. Now who's chicken?

We had cocktail hour. We ate well. We went dancing. We never went home before midnight.

We talked about all being frustrated with our jobs. Deep down, Kathy wants to leave the world of high finance for cooking school. Shana is getting burnt out writing about foster care abuses and welfare system failures for her Fort Lauderdale paper. She longs for a stint in features, the sunny side of the street.

I miss writing. I was good enough at it that I got promoted right out of doing the thing I liked best about my job into the stuff that tends to make it work.

Closer to normal

It's now the end of the year. Kathy says the city is much closer to normal. She and Francois were watching "The Real World" and saw the towers and thought, "Those were big buildings," not "Oh my God."

"It's something that happened rather than something that is happening," she said.

We left New York promising not to let too much time pass before we tore up the Big Apple again. We are keeping our word not to rely on e-mail, but to pick up the phone on holidays and birthdays and when we need a favor.

And when we go back next year, we will stay out late, eat way too much and go dancing.

Maybe by then it really will be just girls' weekend on the town.